MALTA DIARY: “Carnival is for children” – but adults enjoy it too!
To build up empathy and interest in the Easter Resurrection of Jesus Christ after his Crucifixion, the Christian faith declared a build-up of 40 days of Lent, a period of great sobriety, abstinence and the spreading of ashes and wearing of sack cloth.
In time, some bright spark came up with the idea that 40 days of breast-beating was too much to face so why not precede this with a three-day period of letting-hair-down excess? Hence the birth of Carnival and to head it, have a King Carnival?
Thankfully no feminist idealist has – as yet – entered the fray to vehemently demand why not a Queen Carnival even though a long-standing argument has been broached over whether God is actually a male or a female!
And thus the seal was firmly set, three days of excesses ending at midnight on Tuesday when the moaning and groaning begins on Ash Wednesday. Humans being humans, in time the three days have been stretched and Malta’s Carnival this year kicked off on a Friday, paving the way for five days of merriment.
Fair enough, Malta is not Rio and it’s not Venice and can never aspire to be in their Carnival class. However, in its own way, the Malta Carnival has a charm of its own.
Take Friday, 24th February with Primary Schools throughout Malta and Gozo starting their celebrations, all children wearing costumes and their teachers too. The Primary School at Lija actually had their own band, the band-leader being an ex-pupil who felt the urge to sentimentally return to his former school to thank the community for the time he spent there.
The main body of Carnival is centred around Valletta but over the years has branched off into celebrations in various localities, the main attraction being in Nadur, Gozo renowned for its bizarre and grotesque celebrations and masks more appropriate to Halloween than to Carnival. Its popularity has escalated over the years and nowadays thousands cross the Gozo Channel to be on the spot.
Ghaxaq in Malta celebrates its own local Carnival in mostly impromptu costumes displays and parades and this year Hamrun organised a festival of bands with no less than six parading along its High Street on Sunday morning.
The Maltese Carnival was introduced by the Knights of St John late in the 16th Century and tended to be bawdy, raucous and libertine where perhaps for one of the first times in history, males and females considered themselves to be on an equal footing, the women as coy as ever, the men taking the opportunity to try their luck and be more forward.
In time this developed to be a Carnival Parade (or defile’) with floats led by an effigy of King Carnival, embarking on what is probably the shortest ever reign by a monarch, three or four days. Carnival groups began to be formed competing against each other in costume and dance routines as well as best designed floats.
Again, humans being humans, Carnival presented an ideal occasion for criticising ‘the powers that be’ and escaping a good flogging or beating with guaranteed immunity because of the ‘Carnival spirit’. In time this developed into satire and sarcasm and often began to veer over the top.
In fact on one occasion a British Governor General cancelled celebrations with immediate effect, deeming them to be obscene and disrespectful and earned the extreme ire of the Maltese followed by vehement street protests.
In more recent times political satire and sarcasm became banned from the late 1950s onwards as the local political scene became heated rivalry but has now been restored over the last two or three years with fun being made of various politicians and personalities.
In 1823, terrible tragedy struck when no less than 110 children were violently trampled to death in a stampede, a scene of extreme horror. This happened on 11th February 1823 on the last day of Carnival. A chronicle of events reported thus:
“They died of suffocation in the corridor of the ground floor of the convent of the Minori Osservanti of Valletta (a Minor Order of Nuns) at 6.30pm after the procession that is customarily held during the days of carnival. The next day they were conveyed to the cemetery.”
At the time, Malta was experiencing rampant famine and it was customary to provide poor children from Valletta and the Cottonera area with bread and fruit to keep them away from the “confusion of Carnival”. Thus, food was distributed at the Ta’ Ġieżu Convent, in Valletta, following a religious procession from Floriana.
Several poor people joined the children at the convent event to have their share of the bread being handed out. They entered through the convent’s vestry, walked through a corridor, which included a flight of eight steps, and headed towards an exit leading onto St Ursula Street.
When all were in, the vestry door was closed to stop those already given bread from going back in again for a second helping. Accidently, a lamp illuminating the corridor was extinguished and a commotion arose leading to the stampede and the death of at least 94 children, according to hospital records.
The exact number of victims at the time was not clear and, in fact, contemporary reports hold that “no less than 110 children perished on this occasion from suffocation, by being pressed together in so small a space or trampled upon” (The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, January to June 1823, London).
Shocking and sad indeed and a terrible tragedy.
One final point of interest – the “Qarcilla” has had a revival after being banned by the British Authorities over 120 years ago as being “obscene and disrespectful” during the strait-laced Victorian era.
It originated from the late Middle Ages and was an essential part of Carnival and consisted of street theatre and strolling players depicting various social sketches. The “Qarcilla” normally featured a man taking the role of a notary, a young couple and another actor performing the role of a priest.
The dialogue was saucy and provocative and took satirical swipes at Laws, the authorities and nobility. It has now regained popularity and is back on the streets.
This year too, horses and horse-drawn cabs and carts – very popular in the past before mechanisation – have also been restored to the big parade.
So, adults excuse their enthusiastic participation by saying “Carnival is for children” – but believe me, adults enjoy it too!